2018 Mar 12
Recently, a 41 year old father in Homagama, Sri Lanka, fed his 3 year old daughter poison and then committed suicide by taking the poison himself. It is believed that he did this because the condition of his daughter – who was differently abled from birth – troubled him. This tragedy which cost two lives could have been prevented. This is just one of many heartbreaking tragedies that we as a nation have got too accustomed to hearing about. They can be prevented. Lives can be saved. Despite the prevalence of mental health illnesses increasing in Sri Lanka, there is still ignorance, shame and fear when dealing with it. However, it is heartening to see that lately there has been an increase in measures carried out by individuals and groups to raise awareness and eliminate that stigma.
One such admirable initiative is the project Footsteps to Freedom; a walk across Sri Lanka to raise mental health awareness, undertaken in 2016 by Nivendra Uduman, a counselling psychologist. He walked from the southernmost point of Sri Lanka – Dondra, to the northernmost point – Point Pedro. After the success of the first walk, Nivendra has been inspired to do Footsteps to Freedom II, which will be a walk around the coastal belt of Sri Lanka, again with the purpose of raising mental health awareness but focused on suicide prevention.
Two other individuals, Ranil Thilakaratne from the CCC Line and Sara Nazoor, a trainee Psychologist, will be walking alongside Nivendra in April this year.
When asked what inspired him to do a second walk, Nivendra said:
“I began to feel the itch to want to do something different than my regular work, and I also wanted what I started in 2016 to continue. Footsteps to Freedom – A walk across Sri Lanka to raise awareness in mental health that took place in 2016 gave me a great deal of perspective as to how conversations on mental health can happen at the most uncanny places. I believe mental health should not be limited to the space of a consulting room, or a hospital. It must be talked about in the community, reaching directly into the hearts of people. Messages around awareness must be taken into the community, and delivered to people in the daily spaces that they occupy i.e. the village tea shop. The sheer need to take the conversation out to those who fall through the cracks in our system and also to see an entirely different side to my beautiful country is what inspired me to do the second phase of Footsteps to Freedom.”
When asked what had inspired her to join Nivendra on Footsteps to Freedom II, Sara had this to say: “The stories that Nivendra brought back from the previous walk, the sheer beauty and strength I see in people I meet every day and everyone who believes in me has been the inspiration.”
The reason behind Ranil’s wish to join Nivendra on the walk aligns with the aim of his foundation, the CCCLine: “To reduce the suicide rate in Sri Lanka through education, engagement, and empowerment to break the stigma attached to the mantel illness and contributory social issues. We believe that empowering people to come “Out of the shadows” and talk about their problems is fundamental in reducing social issues that ultimately lead to suicide. We believe that Footsteps to Freedom II is another excellent way to take this message of hope to people and meet them face to face. To encourage them to come out of their shadows and talk about their problems. Together with my personal experience and the need to do something about the current situation I will be joining the full walk of Footsteps to Freedom II.”
During the initial walk in 2016, Nivendra conducted both planned and impromptu workshops, reaching out to communities and speaking on mental health matters such as sexual abuse, depression and suicide, domestic violence, alcohol and substance abuse and general disorders. This second walk will follow the same routine, however the content of the workshops and educational speeches will revolve around suicide prevention.
Speaking on what more, apart from the route will be different this time around, Nivendra said:
“I will be walking with two beautiful, energetic and enthusiastic human beings. Ranil Thilakaratne from the CCCline1333 and Sara Nazoor, an aspiring Psychologist, both whom I have known for a considerable amount of time, and both passionate about the cause without hidden agendas. I am really excited to be walking with those who share my passion about promoting mental health in our community. We will also be focusing a great deal more on suicide prevention than in the last walk, and I believe that this time around, the walk will focus mainly on the civilian population from multiple ethnic, religious, and social backgrounds. The walk will be so much more challenging than the last one, with a longer distance to be walked, environmental conditions different and of course the April heat. However, we are ever so ready to take the challenges that come our way, because our intention is stronger than everything else.”
The walk will begin on the 1st of April from Mount Lavinia and continue for approximately 2 months, finishing back in Colombo. You can join the team to experience what it’s like, firsthand. Even if you can’t commit to the whole two months, you can walk with them at certain points, whichever ones are the most convenient for you. They will cover between 14 to 26 kilometres of ground daily. Check out the route map below!
After the first walk in 2016, Nivendra’s passion for the cause only increased;
“I am really excited to talk to more people, engage with different communities and also to find innovative ways ‘on the buzz’ to deliver key messages around suicide prevention and mental health. I am also very excited about having such a close relationship with the ocean while I walk, as the walk will be around the coastal line of Sri Lanka. The ocean brings me a great deal of peace and contentment and this will definitely benefit my own mental health and well-being. Personally, I am very hopeful that we will be able to reach a large number of people along the way and hopefully contribute to their well-being and most importantly combat the stigma that exists around mental health problems in the country. We will also be collaborating with a number of organizations working in the psychosocial arena and this will open up new avenues for us to explore, along the way. Exciting times, indeed!”
The prevention of suicide begins with shattering the stigma and empowering people to talk about their problems. If people begin to feel that they are not alone; that other people are going through the same thing, that there are people to whom they can speak, they may not resort to the desperate measure of taking their lives. This sentiment is echoed behind what the team hopes to achieve through this walk.
According to Sara, “The end goal is simple, to finish the walk, but by walking 1400+ kilometres I want to spread hope to at least one person.”
Ranil said: “I hope that we can save even one life during this walk. And help people understand that there are places they can get help. And that they are not alone.”
Apart from raising awareness, the walked is aimed at raising funds for Shanthi Maargam and CCC Line, two organizations working towards emotional well-being and suicide prevention in Sri Lanka.
If you want to contribute to this amazing cause and help #ShattertheStigma, they are looking for passionate, enthusiastic volunteers to help out in organizing and coordinating during the walk. You can message the Footsteps to Freedom Facebook page or reach out to Tharu on 0775370229.
The team leaves you with this final message:
“Suicide prevention is not just the responsibility of health professionals or the government. It is the responsibility of the community, that means, you and me. We are all equally vulnerable to developing mental health problems or suicidal thoughts during the course of our lifetime, and therefore I believe that we all play a role in preventing the same. There needs to be more people involved in the conversation around well-being in our country, and therefore we request that people from all corners of the country join us, in this life changing, mind shifting adventure that we are about to embark on. Share our love for our country, and our passion for promoting better health for all. See you on the road.”